The Mobile Mansion is Gone

Another chapter of my old life ends.

On Monday, I delivered my 36-foot fifth wheel Montana Mountaineer RV, affectionately nicknamed “the Mobile Mansion” to its new owners. Yesterday, I met them at the bank to have the paperwork notarized and get my check.

Early Life of the Mobile Mansion

I bought the Mobile Mansion brand new back in 2010 in Quartzite, AZ. I got a great deal on it. The Great Recession was killing RV manufacturers and dealers; by January 2010, Quartzite dealers were desperate to unload brand new RVs.

Mobile Mansion in Quincy
Here’s the Mobile Mansion parked at the golf course I stayed at in Quincy, WA, for about two months each summer. (I now hire pilots to work my Quincy contracts.)

It was the second — well, fourth if you count the popup camper and horse trailer with living quarters — in a line of RVs I’d owned since the early 2000s. Like its predecessor, a Starcraft hard-sided camper with pop-out beds, It was a business asset for Flying M Air: I bought it as a place to live when I traveled for my flying work. I’d begun working in Washington every summer in 2008 and wanted an affordable and comfortable place to live while I was there. The Starcraft was affordable but not comfortable. The Montana was very comfortable mostly because it was very large. I got a big one because I expected that I’d be living in it for four to six months a year with the man I was married to and our mid-sized dog. I wanted us to have plenty of space. I wanted it to be a true home away from home. When I bought it, I blogged that it was the “perfect” RV.

A Temporary Home for the Homeless

When my marriage fell apart in June 2012, I was living in the Mobile Mansion in Washington State, where I was working for the fifth summer in a row. I didn’t bother bringing the Mobile Mansion back home to Arizona at the end of the summer. Instead, I stored it in a friend’s garage, along with my boat. I’d need it in Washington the following year no matter what happened, so it made no sense to bring it home.

I did move it down to California in February 2013 for the frost control work I started there that year. It was a lot of fun to live part time at an airport with my helicopter parked a few hundred feet away.

At Watts-Woodland
The Mobile Mansion parked alongside a hangar in the Sacramento area. You can see my helicopter parked on the ramp at the left side of the photo.

In May 2013 when the court stuff was finally done and my wasband finally agreed to a division of personal assets in our Wickenburg house and Phoenix condo, I moved out of Wickenburg permanently. By that time, the Mobile Mansion was back in Washington, settled in for my summer work, and I moved right back into it.

I lived in it for most of the next two years. I traveled a bunch in the winter, as I usually do, and had a three-month housesitting job during the coldest months of the winter of 2013/14 when living in the Mobile Mansion parked outdoors would have been tough. The following winter, the shell of my new home was finished and, when I wasn’t in Arizona or California, I lived in the Mobile Mansion inside the RV garage. I had a full hookup in there: 30 amp power, water, and sewer. It was comfortable, but cave-like — sort of like that Phoenix condo I’d hated so much — and it really motivated me to finish up my living space upstairs.

Mobile Mansion in Construction Zone
The Mobile Mansion was my home and base of operations while my new home was being built. I even set up a time-lapse camera on one of the slides to record the whole building process.

In early April 2015, I moved upstairs, sleeping on an air mattress on the bedroom floor. The shower wasn’t done yet, so I still showered down in the Mobile Mansion in the garage. But by the end of the month I was mostly moved in, with my furniture in place. Although my home wasn’t 100% complete, I was done living in the Mobile Mansion.

Or so I thought.

The Mobile Mansion stayed in the RV garage until July. I’d been playing around with AirBnB, using the full hookup campsite at the edge of my driveway as a rental and getting some activity. But in July, I moved the Mobile Mansion back outside and parked it near where it used to be. I pulled all of my personal items out of it, leaving only what was needed for guests. And then I put it on AirBnB. Amazingly, I was able to rent it almost every weekend right into October, getting $80/night with a two night minimum.

Mobile Mansion
People paid $160/weekend to live in the Mobile Mansion with it parked right where it is in this photo. (And no, the helicopter usually wasn’t parked in the side yard.)

(I could probably write a whole blog post about squeezing money out of assets without a lot of headaches. I’ve gotten pretty good at it.)

Mobile Mansion for Sale

By September, I had decided I definitely wanted to sell the Mobile Mansion. I wanted to travel for the winter but I wanted a smaller rig. I’d already started shopping for one. At the time, I was thinking of a much smaller bumper pull. I listed the Mobile Mansion in various places, hoping to sell the truck with it.

After that last AirBnB rental, I took everything out of the Mobile Mansion, gave it a good cleaning, and dropped it off at an RV sale lot in East Wenatchee. The folks there were pretty confident they could get my price.

They came in with two offers, both of them very low. Bargain hunters looking for “motivated” (read that desperate sellers.) I didn’t have to sell the Mobile Mansion. It was fully paid for and not costing me a thing to keep. I’d even made nearly $2K using it as a rental for part of the summer.

By December, I’d decided to go south for the winter. My friends were camping out in the Colorado River backwaters and I wanted to join them. I figured I’d sell the Mobile Mansion while I was away and come home with a different rig. So after my Christmas skiing trip, I went to the sale lot with all the gear I’d need for the winter, packed up the Mobile Mansion, hooked it up to my truck, and headed south on what was supposed to be a three-month trip.

Old Ford
The last of the snow melted off the roof when I reached Blythe, CA.

Despite the in-transit trials, I had a great time. It was good living off the grid with my friends, soaking up the sun, fishing, paddling, horseback riding, and shopping for deals in Quartzsite. I almost sold the Mobile Mansion once — I had a decent deal to trade it for a truck camper and still get cash in hand. But I wasn’t mentally ready for such a huge downsizing. I made some improvements to the Mobile Mansion, thinking I might keep it after all.

Mobile Mansion Parking
Living in Arizona along the Colorado River in the Mobile Mansion last winter was tough. Not.

I regretted not taking that offer when I left Arizona in February and started my trip to California for my frost control work there. Truck trouble stranded my truck and the Mobile Mansion in southern California, really screwing up my plans. I went home, fetched the helicopter for my contract, and spent some time in the Sacramento area with it. But without the Mobile Mansion to live in, I didn’t want to be there. I went home, leaving the helicopter, my new used truck, and the Mobile Mansion scattered around California. It wasn’t until April that I was able to fetch everything and bring it home.

After cleaning the Mobile Mansion out yet again, I brought it right to a sale lot in North Wenatchee. Once again, the sales guy told me how sure he was that he’d sell it — possibly even within a few weeks.

But I didn’t wait for the Mobile Mansion to sell before getting on with my plans. (I am so done waiting for someone else to do something to move forward with my life.) I bought a truck camper to replace it and almost immediately put it to use. After an overnight “shakedown tour,” I put it to work housing one of the pilots who worked for me in Quincy. (I suspect he would have been more comfortable in the Mobile Mansion. Oh, well.)

The sales lot guy was unable to sell it. I think it’s because he was asking so much more than it was worth, hoping to turn a tidy profit on my rig. And the fact that when he didn’t feel like coming to work, he didn’t — so the lot was closed more often than it was open. (Needless to say, he won’t be seeing me again.)

It Pays to Wait

Fortunately, I hadn’t stopped telling the people I know about it. And two of them were interested — but not for the price the guy on the lot was asking.

We agreed on a price. Ironically, it was more than the price my wasband had accepted on our jointly owned 40-acres of vacation property in Northern Arizona the month before. (Desperate sellers will take anything. Yes, I accepted the low offer, too, but the only thing I was desperate about was finally ending any ties I had to the sad sack old man I’d married 10 years before. The money was nothing. Almost literally.)

And I didn’t have to split the proceeds with anyone.

I delivered the RV to the new owners on Monday. I let one of them use my truck to back it into their hangar, which was just deep enough for him to back it in. I showed them how to unhook it. I gave them the full tour, including the “secrets” I’d learned about it in the five years I’d spent so much time in it. That took nearly an hour. I had mixed feelings as I was doing it, but I think the overwhelming feeling was that of relief.

Yesterday, I met them at the bank where we signed and notarized the title and other papers and I got my check. After handshakes and even a hug, I left them and went right to the bank to drop off the check.

Although I’m a tiny bit sad about closing the Mobile Mansion’s chapter in my life, I’m also very happy to do it. To me, the Mobile Mansion was a constant reminder of broken promises, miscommunication, and lies. Although I’ll miss its spacious comfort when I travel, I’m very glad it’s gone.

The First Mushroom Hunt of Autumn 2016

Limited success and a bunch of new mushrooming resources.

Cooler weather is upon us and that means the chanterelle mushrooms are coming into season.

Last Friday morning I went out for a hike/mushroom hunt with my hiking friend, Sue. Sue knows all kinds of things about plants and animals and even rocks, so going on a hike with her is a great learning experience. And although she doesn’t eat mushrooms, her husband does and she’s always game to go hunting with me.

The Hike

We chose a trail we both like up Icicle Creek beyond Leavenworth, WA. It’s a bit of a drive — about 50 miles from my home, including more than 10 on gravel. Another mushrooming friend of mine claimed she’d found chanterelles right on the trail. I was doubtful and I think Sue was, too. So as we hiked, we took occasional forays into the forest on one side of the trail or the other, right where we thought chanterelles might grow. I did find a very nice coral-type fungus that we believe is edible; I took it with me to examine more closely later.

Then it happened: Sue found a golden chanterelle mushroom growing right alongside the trail. While she harvested it, I combed the area looking for more. She joined me. We came up empty.

I should mention here that chanterelles are pretty easy to identify. They normally have sort of misshapen caps and the gills on the underside are more like ridges or wrinkles than regular mushroom gills. They normally extend down the mushroom’s stem. You can find photos on WikiMedia. There are some “false” chanterelles and a similar looking poisonous variety called Jack O’Lantern, but it’s pretty easy to distinguish these from real chanterelles, which are prized as tasty mushrooms. If you’re interested in hunting for chanterelles, study up first and make sure you know what you’re looking for and where you might find them.

We got to a point in the trail where we were within a quarter mile of a place I’d found chanterelles the previous year and took a little detour to check it out. I walked us over to where I found them and we searched the ground. It seemed too dry. I gave up quickly and moved off to another nearby spot, but Sue stuck with it. Soon she called out “I found one!”

I hurried back. She pointed it out and I took a photo. Then we saw one nearby that was just poking out of the forest duff.

And that’s when I started seeing little mounds all over the place. Lots of young chanterelles just popping out of the ground.

Young Chanterelle
A young chanterelle mushroom, just poking out of the ground.

I used my new pocketknife — I bought one with a bright orange handle so I wouldn’t lose it while mushroom hunting — to dig a few out and put them in my bag. They were all a yellowish white color with a relatively regular looking cap. I showed one to Sue and she confirmed that they were chanterelles.

We continued to hunt in that area before getting back on the trail. Sue found some other mushrooms in various stages of decay — russulas. None of them were worth keeping, even if they were of edible varieties.

We finished our hike and headed home, stopping in Leavenworth for lunch and to buy smoked meats (Cured), wine (Ryan Patrick), and cheese (Cheesemonger).

Uncertainty

If there’s a golden rule to hunting for edible mushrooms, it’s this: never eat a mushroom you find unless you are certain that it’s edible.

side of mushroom

top of mushroom

mushroom gills

inside mushroom
Several views of one of the mushrooms I harvested on Friday. When trying to get help with identification, it’s important to show as much detail as possible.

When I got home, I took a closer look at the five chanterelles I’d found. They were all smaller and much more “perfect” looking than any chanterelle I’d ever seen. What if Sue was wrong? What if they weren’t chanterelles and I ate them?

I combed through my mushroom books. None of the pictures matched what I had. I started to write Sue a warning email.

I posted some photos on Facebook, trying to see if any of my friends could advise me. Then I looked for and found three different mushroom identification groups on Facebook and signed up for each of them. I couldn’t post photos until I was approved for membership, though.

Then, as usual, I got sidetracked by something else and didn’t give it another thought until morning.

On Saturday morning, I was thinking about a chanterelle mushroom omelet. So I took my morning coffee to the computer and began searching the internet. I knew there was something called a false chanterelle, and I looked it up. That’s where I learned that false chanterelles have normal fin-like gills while real chanterelles have the wrinkle- or ridge-like gills. There was another chanterelle look-alike called a jack o’lantern that was definitely poisonous, but what I’d picked had very little in common with that. (Keep in mind that although I’m linking primarily to Wikipedia articles here, I consulted many sources.)

I finished the email to Sue and sent it. Then I kept researching. I wanted so badly to eat my mushrooms but I didn’t want to get sick. I’d been approved for all three mushroom identification groups on Facebook so I took and sent photos, including the ones you see here. I kept researching while I waited to hear back.

Around that time, I found a trio of photos on the Mushroom Forager website’s page about Hedgehog Mushrooms. It illustrated three similar mushrooms. The middle photo was almost identical to what I had.

Mushroom Gills
This image, which can be found at The Mushroom Forager website, helped convince me I had chanterelles.

I started cutting up my chanterelles for an omelet.

Then I checked back with Facebook. The mushroom identification group members were starting to chime in. The first few were pretty sure that it wasn’t chanterelles. I put the mushrooms away in a container in the fridge and had an omelet without mushrooms.

Throughout the day, more responses trickled in. And this is where the group dynamics really come into play. Some were sure that they weren’t chanterelles. Some were sure that they were. So I really wasn’t any better off than I’d been before consulting the groups.

Finally, late in the day, some folks who obviously knew a lot about mushrooms started responding. They identified the type of chanterelle with its genius and species: cantharellus subalbidus. While some group members argued with them, they were firm. They provided additional information about the area in which they grow: old growth forests like the one I’d been in. One even provided a link to a page that illustrated it.

I should mention here that of the three groups I joined, the Mushroom Identification Page group seemed to have the most knowledgeable participants, although none of them were free of people who offered incorrect information based on limited facts. (I really need to do a blog post about Facebook group dynamics.)

I should mention that by this time, Sue had also responded to my email. She was certain it was a cantharellus subalbidus, too. She has some resources where she looked them up. I guess she didn’t want to poison her husband!

Feasting on My Find

That evening, I sautéed some thinly sliced veal and prepared a chanterelle cream sauce for it. I had it with a side of fresh steamed green beans from my garden and glass of sauvignon blanc. Delicious.

I finished up the mushrooms the next day by cooking them into an omelet with some scallions and buckboard bacon. Very tasty.

This was my fourth mushroom hunting trip and the second for chanterelles. (I hunted twice for morels this spring.) I marked the GPS coordinates for my find and plan to return this week. Although it hasn’t rained, I’m hoping that cool, shady area of the forest is damp enough for the chanterelles to grow.

I really enjoy collecting my own food, whether it’s foraging in the forest for seasonal mushrooms, gleaning from an orchard after harvest, tending my own garden, or collecting eggs from my chickens. There’s something very special about having that kind of connection with your food.

But best of all, you can’t beat it for freshness.

The Sticker on the Coffee Cup

Logic, U.S. government style.

Last week, I was in the North Cascades National Park. On a whim, I stopped by the Visitor Center at Newhalem. In addition to the usual interpretive displays, they have an excellent three-dimensional map of the area that identifies rivers and lakes and dams with lights; push a button and a red light appears on the map to show you where that thing is. They also had a ranger standing at a table with a bunch of reproduction animal skulls (wolverine, wolf, and bear) and corresponding paw castings and pelts. And a gift shop.

I went into the gift shop before leaving because … well, that’s what I do. I found some interesting kids’ stuff and picked out two gifts for my neighbor’s grandson, who has some learning disabilities. Then I saw a large coffee mug I liked — I like a big cup of coffee in the morning — and thought I’d buy it as a little gift for myself. But it had a paper sticker on it that had nothing to do with the mug. I reached for another, hoping to find one without a sticker and that’s when I realized that they all had stickers.

The sticker, which is shown below, says:

The North Cascades has an annual rainfall of over 200″ in some areas, which feeds the many cascading waterfalls of the region.

Sticker on Mug
This sticker was on every single coffee mug in the shop.

On a side note, I can definitely believe that rainfall figure because it rains every single time I go there. Although I like rain more than most people — probably because it rains so seldom where I live — I prefer getting rain at home instead of when I’m traveling. (Yeah, I know: whine, whine, whine.)

Of course, being the inquisitive person I am, I had to know why this sticker was on the mugs. So when I went to pay for my purchases, I asked the ranger at the check out counter.

He didn’t know. He said he’d never even noticed the stickers. He said he’d ask the guy who stocked the shop.

PFDs when flying across the Grand Canyon?

This brings to mind another side story that is related to this.

Years ago, the FAA changed its rules regarding personal flotation devices (PFDs or life jackets) on board flights conducted for tours. The new rule said that if any part of the flight crossed any body of water, a PDF was required for each passenger. This extended to Grand Canyon tours, which, of course, cross the Colorado River 5000 feet or more below the helicopter’s flight path. When I was a Grand Canyon tour pilot (which was before this rule came into play) the pilots often discussed that in the event of an engine failure, we should autorotate anywhere except to the water. The river was about 55°F, flowing at 10 mph or more, and full of rapids. When you’re doing an autorotation from 5000 feet, you have plenty of time to find and navigate to a more suitable landing zone; believe it or not, there are quite a few inside the canyon.

I spoke to the woman who created this rule — an aging FAA pencil pusher who had likely never flown across the Grand Canyon and reminded me of my sixth grade teacher, Miss Dumphy — and tried to tell her how silly (actually, idiotic, but I toned it down) her rule was. She didn’t care. Water was water; the way her rule was written, PFDs would be required when crossing a 3-foot-wide stream.

I didn’t have long to wait. That ranger walked by a moment later and the guy I’d asked called him over and asked him. He seemed almost embarrassed when he told me that they weren’t allowed to sell anything in the gift shop unless it provided some kind of interpretive or general information about the park.

Apparently, just having a logo on the mug wasn’t enough to satisfy some decision maker higher up on the food chain. The sticker was the solution.

I bought the mug as a practical memento of my visit to the park. I didn’t mind paying the price — which I honestly can’t remember — because I figured that it was another way to support the National Park Service. I didn’t need any additional information about the park to help me justify my purchase. And I definitely didn’t need a sticker that I had trouble scrubbing off once I got home.

But it makes me wonder … what other things are National Park Service employees being required to do to meet government guidelines established by someone in Washington who may have traveled to only a tiny fraction of the parks?

My First Stab at Night Sky Photography

What I learned at a North Cascades Environmental Learning Center photography class.

I love the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, which is not far from the Diablo Dam on Diablo Lake on the North Cascades Highway (Route 20). I got my first glimpse of it during a camping trip last summer and later that year returned to take a three-day course about mushrooms. This year, I returned for one night of Base Camp right before an overnight seminar titled “Wilderness Photography: Washington Pass at Night.” Here’s the course description, since I can assume the link to the course page will eventually break:

In the grandeur of the North Cascades, moonless nights with clear skies offer fantastic opportunities to capture vivid images of the galaxy.

Join photographer Andy Porter on this specially-scheduled evening expedition to capture images of the Milky Way on this moonless night. We’ll begin the adventure with a short evening workshop on night photography at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. Then we’ll head to Washington Pass where, under the towering peaks of Liberty Bell and the Early Winter Spires, Andy will guide us in capturing our own images of the night sky.

I could go into a lot of detail about my stay at the NCELC and the other things I did while I was there, but I’ll try to stay focused for this post. But I do need to talk briefly about the weather, since it did play a major part in how the course went.

The weather was not very good. It was overcast all day and rained more than a few times. Although the clouds were relatively high, there wasn’t a single clear patch in the sky. It was like this all day, which really didn’t surprise me — it rains every single time I come to this area. I like the rain, mostly because I don’t get much of it at home, but I really wish it wouldn’t rain in the mountains when I’m there.

Diablo Dam to Washington Pass
Washington Pass is a 35-mile drive southeast from Diablo Dam on Route 20.

Of course, we weren’t supposed to take pictures in the Diablo Lake area. We were supposed to go to Washington Pass, about 35 miles east. I’d driven through the Pass the day before on my way to the NCELC and it had been partly cloudy, with smoke from a fire I later discovered was burning near Mazama. But the weather information we had showed that Washington Pass was likely just as bad as it was where we were. And there’s nothing worse than making a 70-mile round trip drive to take pictures and not being able to do so.

There was a short classroom session after dinner. Andy introduced himself and showed off a few slides of his work. Most featured an easily identifiable foreground object that was often lighted — like a tent with kids in it or the roots of a fallen log — and a magnificent night sky. He briefly explained how he accomplished the lighted part of the shot by illuminating it for only about a second during the long exposure required to get the night sky. He also admitted to doing a lot of post processing and even showed us before and after shots.

Then he gave us the details on how we needed to set up our cameras for nighttime shooting. Here’s a brief version of his instructions. I’m not giving away any secrets here — all this information is available in a wide variety of places online.

Required Equipment

Before I detail the settings, let me start with the basics. If you don’t have this equipment, you probably can’t do this kind of photography. Or at least I won’t be able to explain how.

  • Camera. At the very minimum, you need a camera capable of setting aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and focus manually. Most DSLRs can do this, although lower end models might have limitations. These days, I shoot with a Nikon D7000, but I’m pretty sure my old Nikon D80 could do the job. And yes, a film camera could work, but the ability to immediately see results and adjust settings make it really impractical.
  • Wide-angle lens. The wider the field of view, the better off you’ll be. In case you don’t know, the lower the focal length, the wider the field of view. I used a 10-24 mm lens for this shoot and set it to 10 mm. Because I don’t have a full-frame sensor in my Nikon camera, that’s equivalent to a 15 mm focal length. There were people shooting with everything from 10 mm to 28 mm in the class.
  • Tripod. You need a good, sturdy tripod. There’s no getting around it. I use a Manfrotto with a ball head and I love its flexibility. If you have options, use one that can be extended so it’s tall enough for you to look through the lens and check image results without having to bend over. Sturdy is especially important if there’s any wind — although this isn’t something you’d likely attempt with anything stronger than a light breeze.
  • Cable or remote shutter release. My camera won’t support a cable release, but it does support a remote shutter release, which I have. If you don’t have either, there is a workaround: use the camera’s self-timer to release the shutter. (This is what I wound up doing when my remote crapped out for some unknown reason during the shoot.) Under no circumstances should you be pressing the shutter release button by hand; it will definitely shake the camera, even on a tripod.

What’s interesting to me is that just about all of the people who took part in the class — and I think there were nearly 20 of us — had brought a bunch of camera equipment. I didn’t bring all of mine, but I did bring my camera body and three lenses. In reality, all we needed was what I listed above. So when it was time to get on the van to drive out to our shooting destination, I secured my camera on my tripod, rested the top of the tripod on my shoulder, and left the rest of my gear behind. I like traveling light.

Camera Settings

The tricky part of shooting the night sky is setting up the camera properly. Andy, our instructor, had us do this in the classroom so we wouldn’t be fiddling with settings in the dark. If you set the camera up right in advance, there’s only one thing you might have to change out in the field.

  • Widest field of view. If you’re using a zoom lens, zoom out to the widest field of view (smallest focal length number). Again, I used 10 mm.
  • Widest aperture. Set your lens so it’s wide open (smallest f-stop number). This enables the camera to take in as much light as possible during the exposure. For my lens, that was f3.5.

  • Manual focus. This can be a setting on your lens or camera or both. (It’s both on mine.) You definitely do not want the camera trying to automatically focus, especially if your camera won’t make an exposure unless focus is locked in.
  • Lock it in!

    This is where I really wish I had some gaffer’s tape with me. This is special tape used in film production; it makes it possible to secure things like you would with any tape, but when you pull the tape off, no sticky residue is left behind. This would have been very helpful for me to lock that focus ring down, preventing me from accidentally moving it during the shoot.

    Focus to infinity. This is actually a lot trickier than it sounds and it took a while for us to all get it right. Simply dialing the focus ring as far as it goes on the infinity side isn’t necessarily correct. You need to play with it a little at a variety of settings out near the infinity symbol (∞). After each setting, snap a photo of something at least 50 feet away and then check it in the review window. Zoom in to see how crisp it is. Then try another setting to see if it’s crisper. Repeat this process until it’s dialed in perfectly. On my lens, the tick mark was lined up with the center of the infinity symbol but it might be different for yours. If you don’t have focus distance symbols on your lens, you might have to use autofocus to get the right focus setting before setting manual focus. I’m pretty sure that’s what Andy helped a few people do.

  • Manual exposure mode. You must set the camera for manual exposure so you’re in charge of how it takes the photo.
  • Calculating shutter speed with the 500 Rule

    If you want to do the math, it’s pretty simple: 500 ÷ Focal Length ÷ Crop Value

    So if you have a high-end camera with a full frame sensor and you’re using a 12 mm lens, the math is:
    500 ÷ 12 ÷ 1 = 41.66, which you can round down to 40.

    With my camera’s 1.5 crop sensor and 10 mm lens, the math is:
    500 ÷ 10 ÷ 1.5 = 33.33, which I rounded down to 30.

    Maximum shutter speed per the 500 Rule. Okay, this is where it gets a little complicated. Andy gave us a handout with a table of settings for the 500 rule, but never explained what the rule was or why it’s important. I did a little research this morning to learn more. We all know that the earth rotates, which means that the stars appear to move across the night sky. They move slowly so we don’t actually see them moving, but if your camera’s exposure is too long, you’ll get star trails — lines made by the stars as their light moves across the camera’s focal plane. To avoid star trails — which is what we wanted to do — you need to set your maximum shutter speed in accordance with the camera sensor size and lens focal length. You can learn more about this on Petapixel, which is also where you can find a table of values. Keep in mind that the shutter speed is in seconds, not fractions of a second. So when I set my camera’s shutter speed, it appeared as 30" in the settings screen. Exposures longer than that require the “bulb” setting on my camera, which means I’d have to manually open and close the shutter based on time I keep with a stopwatch or something.

  • ISO to 2000. This is a good starting point. Of all the settings, this is the one you might be fiddling with in the dark, so make sure you know how to change it. On my camera, it can be done with a combination of buttons and dials but it’s actually a lot easier to just go into the settings menu. I found that my best shots were done at 5000; more on that in a while.

Shooting

Once we had set up our cameras, we all climbed onto the NCELC’s shuttle bus, filling every seat. Andy took a few people in his car. Although it was difficult to see the sky through the tall trees around the campus, it was still pretty cloudy and none of us had very high hopes of getting good photos. They’d decided to try a closer viewpoint: the Diablo Dam Overlook. This offered views of the main lake and dam, as well as up the Thunder Creek arm of the lake and Colonial Peak. With few trees, we’d have a clear view of the sky.

As we drove over the dam, I was looking out the window and saw a single point of light. “I see a star!” I called out. Other people looked but I’m not sure if they saw anything.

Get away from the lights!

Incredibly — to me, anyway — one of the class attendees had to ask the instructor where the Milky Way was. He could see it, but he didn’t know that that the bright band of stars he was looking at was what’s referred to as the Milky Way — the galaxy our tiny planet is part of. This made me sad. I remember my grandfather pointing out the Milky Way when I was five or six years old, sitting with him on the front lawn of his house in suburban New Jersey, long before light pollution hid it from view. Yet this man, in his seventies (!), had spent so much time in the city that he couldn’t even identify the Milky Way when he saw it in the night sky.

Less than ten minutes later, we were at the overlook, which was understandably deserted. It was well after 9 PM and quite dark. But once our eyes had adjusted after the lights from the bus we saw it above us: the Milky Way.

I beelined it to the corner of the overlook where I’d get a good shot up the Thunder Creek arm. My camera was already on my tripod; all I had to do was extend the legs and neck and get it in position. I might have been the first person to take a shot.

And this is where patience is important. Each of my shots was 30 seconds long. Once the shutter closed, the image did not immediately appear. The camera, which is nothing more than a computer with a camera attached to it, had to process all the information it had just collected. I think this took longer than the exposure time — perhaps as long as another 40 seconds. So from the time I started my shot to the time I was actually able to see it in the review screen at the back of the camera was more than a minute.

Thunder Arm at Night
A look up Thunder Arm at night. The cars driving by on the road often ruined shots by illuminating landscape features we wanted to be kept dark.

My first shot came out dark. Yes, I could see the stars, but no, I couldn’t see them well. I thought it might have something to do with my reading glasses, which seem to make things look darker than they are. But Andy took a look and recommended bumping up the ISO, which he’d originally advised me to start at 1600. So I tried 2000. It wasn’t much better.

Meanwhile, other photographers were snapping away, emitting occasional oohs and aahs and cursing at the cars that drove past the view point, illuminating foreground items we wanted to be kept dark. One woman near me had very good luck with her camera ISO set to 5000 so I gave it a try. (My camera goes up to over 24000.) That looked much better, so I stuck with if for the rest of the shoot.

Keep in mind that the higher the ISO setting, the more light is processed in the camera. There is a cost to this, however. High ISO settings lead to grainy images or “noise” (digital artifacts) in the images. Ideally, you want to keep the ISO as low as possible to get the shot you want. But since you can’t open the lens any wider (aperture setting) and can’t lengthen the exposure any longer (shutter speed setting), the ISO is the only thing you can change to vary the brightness of your shot.

I moved around to a variety of places. The Milky Way was mostly overhead, but it did dip down to the horizon in the south. A handful of light clouds drifted by, sometimes obscuring stars.

Diablo Dam at Night
I took a few shots of the dam. The lights reflected off the clouds, reddening them. I think this is the image where digital noise is most apparent, especially in the clouds. (A few people mistook the reddish clouds in their pictures for the aurora. Sorry, but no.)

We shot for well over an hour. I captured about 40 images. I haven’t looked at all of them on my big computer yet; these are pretty much decent random images I grabbed for this blog post. All of these are edited to make the stars “pop” more than they do in the original. If you have good image editing skills, you’ll definitely use them if you do night sky photography. I prefer to minimize editing.

Sky Through Trees
This was shot almost straight up. I think the trees and clouds offer a sense of three dimensionality.

For the most part, the photographers were good to work with. The only real problem we had was with light — too many of them wore headlamps. The trouble with headlamps is that they point wherever you look. So if you look up, your light flashes up, possibly illuminating trees or other foreground object people want dark. This got a bit frustrating and, more than a few times, I called out, “Lights down, please!” One photographer seemed to think that no lights should be on at all and rudely yelled at anyone who used a light, even if it was pointed down at the ground. Sorry, but when walking on uneven terrain in the dark I’m going to use a light — in my case, my phone’s flashlight. If the light doesn’t shine on the subject, it should not affect the photo.

The End of the Shoot… and Beyond

We went back to campus in two groups. I was in the first one. I’d had enough. My remote shutter control had died about halfway through the shoot and I had to rely on the camera’s self-timer to activate the shutter, adding another 20 seconds to each shot. I was burned out and, unlike most of my companions, I live in a dark sky area and can try this again anytime, right at home.

There was no follow-up lesson — although I really think there should have been the following morning. A chance to review and critique what we’d done. I did spend some time at breakfast with other students and got signed up for a Washington State Astrophotography group on Facebook. I’ve already swapped photos and comments with a few classmates there.

Could my images be brighter? I think so. Next time I try this, I’ll do more experimentation with ISO settings. I might need to pop it up some more.

And yes, there will be a next time. I’m thinking of giving it a go on my deck tonight. And I’m definitely looking for companions on overnight outings, possibly with the Turtleback. Washington Pass would make an excellent subject area, especially with the fresh snow I saw on the peaks on my way home. Anyone game for an overnight road trip this coming week?

At AOPA’s Bremerton Fly In

Why yes, a helicopter can camp with the airplanes at an AOPA event.

With cherry season over, travel season has begun for me. I started with a week-long road trip with my truck and the Turtleback at the beginning of the month. At mid-month, I set off in my helicopter for a four-night adventure with my favorite co-pilot, Penny the Tiny Dog.

About the Fly In

I’ve been an AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) member for almost 20 years now — from the very start of my aviation training. Back then, I joined up primarily to get an AOPA credit card, which would give me a 5% rebate on all of my flight training. When you’re spending $200/hour for dual time in a helicopter — the going rate back in the late 1990s — 5% back is welcome. Later, AOPA helped me finance both of my helicopters, including the R44 I bought back in 2005 and still own.

I get AOPA’s magazine, Pilot, and write for their helicopter blog, Hover Power, which has apparently been merged with their regular blog. I’d heard a lot about their fly ins, but none of them were ever convenient to attend. But this year was different. This year, there was a fly in in Bremerton, WA, which was about an hour’s flight time due west of my home in North Central Washington. Best of all, it was after cherry season, so I’d be free to attend.

A “fly in,” if you’re not familiar with the term, is a gathering of pilots who fly in to a destination. There’s usually something there to draw them in. Often, it’s something as simple as a pancake breakfast or barbecue. But when the fly in is sponsored by a larger organization, such as AOPA, there’s usually a lot more. In Bremerton, there would be seminars, vendor booths, parties, display aircraft, and that all-important traditional pancake breakfast.

The timing was right — I had nothing else on my calendar (although I admit I turned down two charter flights for that weekend). Best of all, the weather would be perfect for a direct flight over the Cascade Mountains. And I even had one or two destinations for after the fly in so I could extend my weekend from two nights to four.

A Stands for Aircraft

As I sort of expected, it wasn’t going to be as easy to arrange as I’d hoped.

The camping information I was promised when I signed up never arrived in my email in box. (Oddly, a lot of stuff I’ve been expecting has never arrived; I’m beginning to think I’ve got email issues.) When the Bremerton Fly In website proclaimed that camping was full, I decided to follow up with AOPA. I was bounced from one person to another and finally began an email exchange with a woman named Paula who could help. She confirmed that I was registered for camping. But because I was flying a helicopter, they’d park me on the “north ramp” and help me get my gear over to the camping area.

So I would not be able to camp with my helicopter?

No, Paula told me. They can’t have helicopters with the airplanes. There were only two helicopters signed up and the other one wasn’t camping.

I told her that was unacceptable. I told her I wanted to camp with everyone else and that I needed my aircraft as a place to secure my valuables. I reminded her that the A in AOPA stood for Aircraft and not Airplane. I told her I’d been a dues-paying member for almost 20 years and was entitled to the same treatment as all other members.

She was at a loss for how to proceed, so I helped out. I told her I’d be arriving early on Friday and departing Sunday. Surely they could park me on the edge of the camping area and let later arrivals fill in the space between me and the folks that arrived before me.

To my surprise, she agreed. She said that many people arrived late on Friday and most left on Saturday so that should work.

I told her I’d be there sometime between 2 and 3 PM on Friday. I also told her I’d bring wheels in case I needed to be moved on the ground.

And then I set about packing.

Packing for the Trip

I do two kinds of camping: tent camping and RV camping.

RV camping is easy; almost everything I need is already stowed in the Turtleback. I add food and clothes, put it on the back of my truck, and set off.

Tent camping takes a bit more effort to prepare for. I stow all of my tent camping gear in two wheeled tool boxes. If I’m going on a regular car camping trip, I add food and clothes to those boxes, include a cooler with ice block jugs for cold items, and gather together items from the Turtleback, like my portable grill and fuel. When I went camping last summer with the guy I was dating at the time, we crammed all this stuff into the back of my Jeep. The wheeled boxes make it easy to transport camping gear from a vehicle to a campsite that might not be nearby.

I don’t go backpacking anymore. At least I haven’t for a very long time. I have no desire to do so and it would be a hard sell to get me to change my mind.

Camping with the helicopter would be a little more challenging. I had room for the smaller of the two wheeled boxes, but not both. Fortunately, I didn’t need all the gear in both boxes. I’d need a small cooler, but not my grill. I’d need a stove and percolator, but not a mess kit. I’d need a tent, but not a large tarp. So I had to go through all my gear and get what I needed packed into the smaller of the two boxes. Tent, air mattress, sheets, fleece sleeping bag, chair, throw rug, lamp, small tarp, stove, fuel, percolator. Most of it fit right into the bin. The rest, including a small cooler with milk for my coffee, dog food, drinks, and other food items, filled the back seat area of the helicopter. I added my orange traffic cones and ground handling wheels. My weekend bag full of clothes went under one of the back seats.

I put Penny on her bed on the front passenger seat — there was no room for her in back — and at around 12:30 PM on Friday, we set off for our long weekend.

The Flight West

We stopped at Pangborn Airport to get fuel before heading west. I had to wait behind two other airplanes fueling up. Is it my imagination or are there more planes flying at Pangborn these days?

I set my panel mount GPS for Auburn Airport and Foreflight on my iPad (EFB) for Don Johnson’s Home heliport. Don (not the famous one) is a friend of mine who owned a helicopter until just a few years ago. He recently accompanied me on a flight from the Sacramento area to his home in Auburn, WA. Don had a pair of helicopter door covers he no longer needed and wanted to give them to me. Since his home was on the way and I hadn’t seen him for a while, I figured I’d drop in for a few minutes.

The sky was cloudless and winds were light when we took off from Pangborn heading almost due west. My track would take me straight over the Cascade Mountains, between Stevens and Stampede Passes. This is a sort of “no mans land” for pilots — once I left the Wenatchee area, I’d pass over just two paved roads for the next 50 or so miles of the 80 nautical mile distance. In between were steep, rocky mountains peaks, steep slopes, mountain streams, and lakes. An engine failure would be a very bad thing — but any pilot who flies chooses a route based on the convenience of an engine failure along that route probably shouldn’t be a pilot.

Wenatchee to Auburn
My route west took me straight across the mountains. This is my actual track, recorded by ForeFlight.

I climbed out gradually, crossing each ridge I reached at a few hundred feet above it. Crossing the Cascades isn’t a big deal on a clear day. Although I honestly can’t remember the highest altitude I reached, I doubt it was more than 6,000 MSL. While a lot of sea level pilots might think that’s high, I learned to fly in Arizona, where there are many airports at 5,000 feet elevation or higher and mountain ranges that forced me above 8,000 feet to cross. The air smooth for most of the flight, although it did get a little rough when I reached the lakes far below me between Cle Elum and Snoqualmie Pass. I crossed I-90, continuing west. Mount Rainier towered in the near distance, snow-covered and serene. I remembered the flight I’d done a year or two before, following the course of the Green River to the base of the mountain and thought again about the deserted fire lookout tower we’d found perched on one of the mountain’s north-reaching arms.

From there, the terrain was mostly downhill. I descended, letting my speed creep up to 120 knots at times. The lower we got, the warmer it got. I opened the front door vents and the main cockpit vent. Penny stirred in her seat yet again — her bed was in the sun and I could tell that she was frustrated that she couldn’t climb in back. It was hot enough without a black fur coat on.

We got close to Don’s house and, as usual, I had to hunt around a bit to find it. The GPS coordinates on Foreflight were off by at least 1500 feet. I knew some of the landmarks and, of course, I knew what Don’s house looked like from the air. But the area was thick with tall trees. I finally caught sight of it, then set up for a straight in approach on my usual route in. It’s a steep descent; you can see a video of it in my post about my April flight with Don. As I came in, I saw two of Don’s garage doors closing; he was working in one of his garages — he has 10 — and was trying to prevent my downwash from blowing things around in there. Then we were on the ground and I was cooling down and Don was outside waiting for me. I let Penny out to run around with Don’s dog while I shut down the engine.

We chatted for a while and he gave me the two door bags, which I managed to squeeze into the helicopter with the rest of the gear in the back seat. Then we went inside for a cold drink. When he heard I was camping, he insisted on giving me a battery operated fan he’d used on a recent overnight bike ride. He said it had been so hot every night that he would have been lost without it. He gave me a fresh set of batteries to go with it, too.

I was already running late for my promised early arrival at Bremerton, so I didn’t stick around long. I got Penny back in the helicopter, said goodbye to Don, and started up. It was just after 2 PM when I climbed out the way I’d come.

Arrival at Bremerton

AOPA released an 18-page PDF with arrival procedures for the fly in. It contained detailed instructions on how airplanes coming in from just about any direction should approach and enter the traffic pattern. Although Bremerton is not a towered airport, there would be an Air Boss directing traffic. The document listed frequencies, provided waypoints (with GPS coordinates), and showed maps. If you were flying an airplane and had any questions about flying in, this document would answer it.

Unfortunately, the word “helicopter” did not appear anywhere in the document. There were no helicopter instructions at all.

Airplane pilots might be thinking, so what? Just follow the airplane instructions. But that’s not what helicopter pilots are supposed to do. FAR Part 91.126(b)(2) is clear on this:

Each pilot of a helicopter or a powered parachute must avoid the flow of fixed-wing aircraft.

To me, that means don’t follow the instructions in that 18-page document.

So what do I do? Fortunately, I knew exactly what the airplanes would be doing so they would be easy to avoid. I also knew that the Air Boss would be directing traffic. I figured I’d fly in as I normally would: direct to the airport and make a call a few miles out with my intentions. In this case, however, I’d be calling the Air Boss with a request and take his orders for landing.

I skirted around the south side of the surface airspace for Seattle Tacoma Airport (KSEA or SeaTac) and headed directly for Bremerton. I admit that I wasn’t too happy flying over the south end of Puget Sound — all that open water! I climbed to about 2000 feet to make a glide to land in the event of an engine failure just a little more possible. Then, on the other side, I descended to about 1000 feet, taking in the scenery around me. It was hazy from fires that were burning on the Olympic Peninsula to the northwest. I was flying over a land of forest-covered islands with straits between them.

Auburn to Bremerton
Here’s my route from Don’s place to Bremerton.

I tuned into the frequency for the Air Boss at Bremerton. It was busy with pilots calling in and the Air Boss patiently telling them to follow the procedures for approach. Occasionally, he would clear airplanes to land and provide taxi instructions. Once, he urged a pilot to get off the runway because another plane was landing behind him. (That 18-page document said, in several places, that pilots should not linger on the runway.)

I didn’t have the airport in sight when I called in from 3 miles out. I was only 500 feet up, avoiding the flow of fixed-wing traffic by staying below the traffic pattern altitude. “Bremerton Air Boss, helicopter six-three-zero-mike-lima is three east landing for camping.”

There was a pause before the Air Boss replied, “Are you the one that called in?”

“I’ve been emailing with Paula,” I told him. (I should mention here that a benefit of being a member of the female pilot minority is that my voice is easily distinguishable from other pilots on the frequency, making it possible to skip identifiers once in a while. Normally, I’d include my N-number in every radio communication.)

“Okay, zero-mike-lima. We know where to put you. Do you see that airplane on downwind?”

I looked. At that point, I could see a plane flying south at what might be traffic pattern altitude. “Zero-mike-lima has that traffic in sight.”

“I’m going to want you to make a lower traffic pattern to the south, outside of his,” the Air Boss said.

As I tried to envision what he wanted, the runway came into view. There was no one on base or final. It would be so easy to just dart across the runway. But I obediently started a turn to the southwest. “Zero-mike-lima turning downwind.”

“I’ve got you in sight now,” the Air Boss said. “Zero-mike-lima, just cross the runway to taxiway alpha and turn south. They’ll direct you.”

“Zero-mike-lima crossing the runway.” I banked to the right and bee-lined it for the taxiway on the opposite side of the runway. I found myself in a hover not far from where some airplanes were parked with tents set up. South would have taken me farther away from them, completely out of the area. So I turned north, figuring he’d made a mistake, looking for someone to flag me in.

A guy with two orange sticks like the kind they use to direct airliners was at the north end of a grassy parking area, directing me in. I followed his instructions to set down at the top of a tiny slope where stakes had been put in to prevent pilots from driving down the little hill. There was some confusion when he had me park perpendicular to all the other aircraft and I asked him whether I could turn sideways. He said he knew helicopters needed to take off into the wind so he thought I’d like that direction better. But the wind was a tiny breeze and I wasn’t taking off for two days. So he let me park facing west, which turned out to be a good thing when the sun really beat down on my camp.

I put Penny on her leash and dropped her out the door while I cooled the helicopter’s engine and shut down. We had arrived.

Making Camp

As I had suggested, they parked me at the edge of the airplane camping area. In the hours to come, they’d start parking other airplanes west and south of me. After climbing out and chatting with Paula, who’d come in a golf cart to greet me, I set up camp.

The breeze was just enough to keep me on my toes as I set up my little domed tent, which I’ve had for at least 20 years. It’s a good quality tent with a rain fly that really works — I can tell you from experience. I had bought new stakes for it and brought along a small sledgehammer to drive them in. I only staked the four corners. Then I inflated my air mattress using a rechargeable air pump I’d bought a few weeks before and made the bed with clean sheets. I opened my fleece sleeping bag and draped it over the bed as neatly as I could. It was going to be hot that weekend — it had already topped out at over 90°F — and I couldn’t imagine needing more. I set Don’s fan up nearby and hung a small battery lamp from the top of the tent. I didn’t bother with the dark blue tent fly — I knew from experience that it would turn the tent into a small oven.

Campsite in Afternoon
My campsite, right after setting up.

I stowed the gear I didn’t need back in the rolling box and set up my stove on the lid. I set up my chair beside it and my cooler beside that. I set the stack of cones — I really only needed one — under the end of the forward facing rotor blade to prevent a fuel truck or some other tall vehicle from driving where a blade strike might be possible.

I was just putting up my wind ribbon on a pole when Paula drove up again. “I can tell you’ve done this often,” she said.

I laughed. “No. This is only my second camping trip with the helicopter. But I’d like to do it more.” (The other time, in case you’re wondering, was at the Big Sandy Shoot way back in 2006.)

By this time, the sun was starting to dip to the west and the north side of the helicopter was in the shade. I settled down on my chair for a rest and to cool down. Penny, who’d been off her leash for a while, had to go back on it; other pilots were arriving and more than a few had dogs Penny wanted to visit with. I set her up with some cold water and food and watched the world go by while sipping an ice cold lemonade from my cooler.

Friday Night at the Fly In

It was probably around 5 PM when Penny and I headed toward the main event area. I didn’t have any tickets for any of the meal events and needed to buy them. I also needed a schedule of the seminars and other activities that would keep me busy on Saturday.

Some of the AOPA guys and vendors were still setting up, but the place was pretty much ready for the event. I wandered around, getting the lay of the land — the main event tent, the smaller session tents, a handful of vendor booths, and the big exhibition tent (which was closed). A bunch of airplanes were on display, including Miss Veedol from Wenatchee. I chatted briefly with Tim, one of the pilots who I already knew. Like me, he’d had a smooth direct flight across the Cascades.

I bought tickets for that evening’s party, the Saturday pancake breakfast, and Saturday’s lunch. Then, since it was hot and there wasn’t much else to do, I headed back to my camp.

A woman wearing a propeller beanie hat and riding a bicycle rode over to chat. Her name was Patrice and she was soon joined by her husband Pat who I’d apparently met (but, as usual, didn’t remember) in Wenatchee when he’d stopped in on a flight. Other people came and went. Some asked questions about the helicopter. I saw one person take a photo of my campsite when he thought I wasn’t looking.

After a while lounging around, studying the program, and catching up on social media, I headed back over to the event area. Although I’d arrived right on time for the party, there was already a long line for food. Penny and I queued up. I chatted with a couple on line behind me as we inched forward. Dinner was pulled pork with cole slaw and beans. And one of those Hawaiian rolls that was so good I finished it before I got to the salad bar.

Although I saw Patrice, who was looking for Pat, I wound up having dinner with Tim and the Miss Veedol gang. Tim had said to me that I had to meet his new friend Barry, who was also a writer. Barry, who was with them at dinner, turned out to be none other than legendary pilot/author Barry Schiff, a man who has been writing about aviation almost as long as I’ve been alive. We chatted a bit about writing and he got me motivated to get back to work on my flying memoir. (A winter project?)

All the time we were eating and chatting, a live U2 cover band was playing outside on a stage set up in front of the B-25, “Grumpy.” As night fell, it got cooler. There were stars and a big moon. It was great to be among so many pilots, most of whom were camped out for the night. I said goodnight to my companions and headed back to camp with Penny. I let her off her leash for the walk between airplane tent camp sites and she tore around like a crazy dog, excited to be let loose after hours of being under foot and under tables. I made a quick stop at the blue plastic building — which had a nice hand washing station beside it — along the way.

Music and Warbirds
They set up the band in front of “Grumpy.”

First Night at Camp

Back at camp, I took a few moments to attach the rain fly to the tent. Despite the fact that it had gotten very warm during the day, it had cooled off considerably. My tent has thin nylon walls, which makes it great for summer camping. But in cold weather, it really needs that full-sized rain fly to provide a layer of insulation. The wind had died down completely, so it was an easy job. I staked it out away from the tent in the back so I’d get air flow through the back window, as well as along the staked poles, not really knowing what to expect.

We crawled into the tent and settled in for the night. I closed the screen but left the door panel open. I got a reasonable flow of air through the tent. That was great — when I first lay down. But as the night progressed, the air got cooler and cooler. I woke up in the middle of the night, thoroughly chilled. After a quick walk in the moonlight to the blue building, I closed up the tent more securely, hoping to keep more warmth in. But I slept fitfully for the rest of the night, feeling the cold ground come up through the bottom of my air mattress. My fault entirely — I’d expected it to be very warm and it wasn’t. I’d have to redo the bed for Saturday night.

Saturday at the Fly In

It was light out — although the sun hadn’t yet risen — when I fully woke the next morning. I threw on some clothes and stepped outside for another visit to the blue building, this time with Penny in tow. It was a perfectly clear day with the temperature probably in the 60s. The sun felt good when it rose above the trees to the east and shined down on my little campsite. Other campers were stirring.

First Light at the Campsite
First light at our campsite on Saturday morning. It was a beautiful day!

Percolator on Stove
I “fixed” my coffee pot size problem with two heavy tent stakes. And no, the plastic parts did not melt.

I prepped the percolator to make a cup of coffee and got my first surprise: the pot was too small to fit on the metal brackets over the burner! ! Instead, it slipped down onto the actual burner, extinguishing it. I felt a moment of panic before annoyance took over. Surely I could do something to make this work. The solution turned out to be two of the tent pegs positioned on either side of the burner. The pot sat atop them. Problem solved. I was drinking fresh, hot coffee a short while later.

Other than a few snacks, I hadn’t brought any food — at least not for me. I did bring food for Penny, which I put out for her. She sniffed it and gave me a look as if to say, “You’re kidding, right?” For the rest of the trip, I’d be sharing my food with her.

After I made a second cup of coffee and dressed for the day — at which time I decided I needed a larger tent that I could actually stand up in — we headed over to the main event area. Breakfast lines were surprisingly short. I had pancakes and sausage, sitting inside the main tent with two pilots from Canada.

Then it was off to the seminars.

The first was about ADS-B, a new ATC tracking system that will be required on all aircraft that fly wherever a Mode C transponder is required — basically within 30 miles of any Class B airspace (think Seattle, Phoenix, Denver, LAX, JFK, etc.) — by 2020. I had a vague idea of what ADS-B was and what it might entail in the way of avionics upgrades, but by the end of the session I completely understood what I’d have to do and how I might benefit. I say “might” because I generally fly too low to be picked up on radar around where I live — literally “below the radar” — and since the ADS-B stations are ground based, I wasn’t likely to be picked up by any of them, either. But if I had a dual band receiver, I could pick up signals sent out by other ADS-B equipped aircraft so I’d see them on my GPS screen — if my systems were compatible.

After that session, the next time slot didn’t have anything that interested me — remember, this event was primarily for airplanes and so much of what the sessions covered simply didn’t apply to helicopter flying — so I decided to take that time to visit the vendor tent. I was mostly interested in applying what I’d just learned to figure out what my upgrade options were and what they’d cost me. There wasn’t much memorable about the vendor area except a few ForeFlight clones, a very crowded Garmin and ForeFlight booth, and a handful of vendors specializing in products or services for airplanes.

ForeFlight, in case you don’t know, was the first successful iPad app for pilots. I was an early adopter and have been using it for years. The FAA even certified ForeFlight on my iPad as my EFB (electronic flight bag) so it’s actually not legal for me to conduct a Part 135 charter flight without it on board. I can’t say enough nice things about ForeFlight. It’s changed the way I plan flights and navigate while in flight. It’s also saved me hundreds of dollars every year on Garmin GPS updates for my panel-mount Garmin 430 GPS — indeed, it saves me enough to buy a brand new iPad with ForeFlight subscription update every two years if I want/need to. (I’m even thinking of pulling that 430, which cost a whopping $12K back in 2005, out of my panel.) And Foreflight isn’t satisfied to rest on their laurels and just rake in the dough like other aviation product makers do — ahem, Garmin? — they’re constantly improving and updating their app, adding features all the time. They even listen to feedback from users; when I complained that their flight planner wouldn’t let me plan a helicopter flight with less than 30 minutes of reserve fuel (the airplane minimum), they modified the software to allow helicopters flight plans with 20 minutes of reserve fuel, as allowed by the FAA.

Do you think I like ForeFlight?

Anyway, since ForeFlight came out, a bunch of copycats have followed it. Garmin makes one of them. (Too little too late, guys.) There were a few others in the vendor tent. I wasn’t interested in switching. I’m sure that none can offer any more helicopter-specific features than ForeFlight or save me any money. And who wants to learn a new app?

But the beauty of using a tablet for an EFB is that I could easily change apps if I wanted to without dumping a lot of money on new panel-mount hardware.

I chatted with a few vendors about a few products. Along the way, I learned that one vendor’s ADS-B solution wasn’t certified for helicopters because of vibrations (huh?) and that I could probably get an ADS-B transmitter/receiver that would work with my iPad and ForeFlight. Although all the vendors at the seminar had urged pilots to get their systems upgraded now because of long waits at avionics shops, it’s clearly in my best interest to wait. As time goes by, more and possibly better and definitely cheaper solutions are coming to market. I could spend $3,000 to $5,000 now or wait three years and spend $1,500 to $4,000 for something better that might be more powerful or smaller/lighter. That’s what I think, anyway. Time will tell.

Penny Sleeping at Seminar
Here’s Penny, sound asleep at the ADS-B seminar.

I had lunch at 11:00 and ate it at a table in the shade of the big main stage tent. It was getting hot outside, just as forecasted — a beautiful sunny day that would soon be in the 90s. I shared my hot dog with Penny, who gobbled it right up and looked for more. She’d been extremely well-behaved all day, snoozing on the floor or my lap in the seminar and letting me carry her in the more crowded areas of the vendor tent.

A speaker came on the stage at 11:15. It was an older female pilot who had made as an airshow pilot. She started her presentation with a story about her father, an airline pilot, who crashed his plane when a passenger went berserk and how much it meant to her when accident investigators determined it wasn’t his fault. It was a weird story and it really turned me off to whatever came next. I got the distinct impression that she’d been telling that story in front of every audience she’d addressed for the past forty years, vindicating her father every chance she got. I was done eating anyway, so I left.

I’d planned on going to the ForeFlight tips seminar at 11:15, but arrived at 11:30 to a standing room only crowd. There was no way I was getting inside the tent — people lined the outside of the seating area and flowed out the doors. I didn’t think I wanted to go in anyway. With poor ventilation in the tent, it had to be nearly 100° in there. I’d get my tips some other time.

Grumpy
“Grumpy,” coming in to park after a flight.

Instead, I went back to the vendor tent and chatted with the few vendors that were too busy to speak to on my first time through. Then I wandered around the airplane exhibits, chatted with a few pilots, and watched the B-25, “Grumpy,” take off with a bunch of passengers who’d paid $495 for the privilege.

The 12:45 seminar I chose was back at the main stage. It was led by AOPA’s media guy, who apparently makes videos related to flying. He showed a series of snort video productions about various pilots or aircraft. Although they were pretty good, his “Top 40 Radio Voice” narration didn’t always fit in and sometimes made me laugh.

An hour later, I was sitting closer to the front of the room in the same tent for Barry Shiff’s presentation, which consisted mostly of funny flying stories with photos. It was, in a way, a sort of aviation stand up comedy routine. Not laugh-your-ass-off funny, but extremely entertaining. Barry has had a long career in aviation and aviation writing and has gotten many opportunities to be part of many interesting projects. Am I alone in considering him a legend? I felt fortunate to have had the opportunity to chat with him the evening before.

I stayed in the tent for the start of the AOPA Pilot Town hall — the last event of the day — but it seemed too much like an airplane-specific commercial for AOPA membership than a chance to learn something. So Penny and I wandered back outside and killed time at vendor booths and watching the B-25 some more. When the Town Hall was over, we near the front of the line for the “ice cream social,” which was basically a bunch of volunteers handing out wrapped ice cream sandwiches and pops that had to be eaten very quickly.

And then it was over. AOPA staff members and volunteers had already begun taking video equipment and signs out of the seminar tents. Vendors began packing up. And the folks who had flown in began leaving.

The stats, available a few days later, were impressive for the event. Over 4,000 people attended, with 690 aircraft (that would be 689 airplanes and one helicopter) flying in and 162 campers. (I’m thinking the campers number is people and not planes, but it could be planes because there were a lot of us.) You can find a summary with some photos here. An AOPA photographer came by my site on Saturday morning to take a photo but I haven’t found it anywhere online yet.

Evening After the Event

Penny and I headed back to the helicopter. I attempted to feed her again and she again turned her nose up to it. She’d had some water during the day and had more when we got in. I sat in my chair in the shade, watching the parade of airplanes taxi by and then take off past me. About half the campers had packed up and left; the others seemed to be sticking around for another night like I was. A few people came by to chat and look at the helicopter.

Someone came by with a flyer for a party that would have a live band. Its location was a bit vague so when Penny and I tried to find it later on, we found a hangar party with no live entertainment that seemed to be wrapping up and a tiny gathering of people in front of a band that seemed to be practicing. Nothing that matched what was on the flyer. (In hindsight, I think it was the gathering by the band which was likely poorly advertised so it was poorly attended.)

Penny with a B-25
Penny looks really tiny next to the front gear of a B-25.

I took some more photos of the classic airplanes sitting around, got yelled at for letting Penny off her leash, and then wandered over to the airport restaurant, leaving Penny tied up outside. (Penny is used to being left on her own when I go into a restaurant or someplace else she can’t go and is very well behaved when I have to leave her.) The place was crowded and I think the staff was overwhelmed. There was no air conditioning and the evaporative cooler I think they had running made the place kind of cool and steamy — if that’s even possible. I had a very unsatisfying meal, bought a plain hamburger for Penny, and headed back to camp. By this time, the sun was setting and I was ready to call it a day.

I remade the bed with my fleece sleeping bag zipped up and my top sheet folded inside it. This would provide two more layers between me and the ground. Then, after watching the sun set and the moon rise, visiting the blue building, and tidying up my camp in case the wind kicked up overnight, I crawled into the tent, got into my pajamas, and slipped into my sleeping bag. Penny curled up on her bed nearby. I read for a while and then fell asleep.

A Foggy Morning

Bremerton was IFR when I woke up the next morning. That means visibility was below minimums and it wasn’t legal to depart. Of course, helicopters can usually get a special VFR clearance, but what good would that do me if I couldn’t get to my next destination? Besides, I wasn’t in any hurry. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t quite sure where I was going to go.

Inside Coffee
My vestibule was large enough to set up my stove and make coffee.

After a visit to the blue building in the dreary predawn light, I staked out the front of my tent fly to create a little vestibule, moved my stove into it, and got the percolator going. A while later, I was drinking hot coffee while I caught up on social networking on my air mattress.

Outside, the other campers were beginning to stir. It was kind of wet outside — not the weather you’d want to be rolling up a tent in — so few were packing up. As the morning progressed, a few planes able to get IFR clearances took off into the gray sky. After a second cup of coffee, I got dressed, put Penny on her leash, and went back to the restaurant for breakfast. There were fewer people in there and both service and food were better. I had an egg scramble with bacon that was huge and brought back some for Penny. When I gave it to her back at camp, she turned her nose up to it, which got me worried because she hadn’t eaten much of the hamburger the night before either.

Back at camp, I made plans for departure. I’d originally thought I’d be bringing the helicopter to a children’s burn camp event in Bellingham, but the friend who’d asked me to do that had completely dropped the ball and hadn’t made any arrangements. (He later told me he’d been busy with a lot of other things. Whatever.) I was due to visit a friend in Salem, OR, but hadn’t planned to arrive until Monday and he wasn’t ready for me a day early. That meant Penny and I had a day to kill. With a helicopter.

I took my time packing up my camp. The weather was clearing slowly and there were pockets of visibility along the coast. I definitely wanted to be south of where I was by the end of the day, making my trip to Salem shorter instead of longer. But where to go? I did a bunch of research on my iPad and found an inn in West Port, WA, on the coast, that was walking distance from the airport there. They allowed dogs and had vacancy. I didn’t want to book a room until I was sure I could make it there, but there didn’t seem to be a problem on a Sunday night.

So with a destination in mind, I finished packing up my campsite, getting all my gear back into the rolling box and eventually back into the helicopter. A few of the folks I’d spoken to over the past day and a half stopped by to say goodbye. The weather had improved to the point where the airport was marginal VFR, so when I was ready to go, I started up the engine and warmed it up. Penny seemed to be happy in the co-pilot seat, curled up on her bed, already resting up for the next adventure.

It was just after 11 when I lifted off. Where was I going? For pie, of course! But that’s another story.